The World Ended: Didn’t You Get the Memo?: AMC’s The Walking Dead and the Allegorical Zombie, Part I

By Kate Daley-Bailey

Amy: “The world ended: didn’t you get the memo?”

These words are spoken in sardonic jest by Amy, one of the few survivors, when another woman questions the division of labor in their “refugee” camp.  AMC’s new blockbuster, The Walking Dead, is the latest embodiment of the apocalyptic zombie phenomena in American popular culture. This TV miniseries is based on a comic book series of the same name written by famed Robert Kirkman and illustrated by Charlie Aldard. Despite my popular culture preference for vampire fictions, my macabre fascination with the conceptions of “death” and “life,” and the liminal space between the two, led me to watch the first episode, along with the 3.6 million viewers in my demographic (adults 18-49), on Halloween of this year (stats from David Dreher at Akron Horror Movie Examiner).

To my pleasant surprise, the series appears to be driven by character development, and, while still maintaining a decent amount of gore, highlights many social and moral concerns.  While not explicitly stated, the series continues to investigate key issues which dominate the Postmodern American cultural consciousness such as: rapid globalization and economic anxiety, cultural and religious pluralism, moral relativism, the brutal reality of physical decay and mortality, and the ethics of war.

Rapid Globalization and Economic Anxiety:

In Religion and Globalization: World Religions in Historical Perspective, John Esposito, Darrell Fasching, and Todd Lewis define globalization as:

the product of the growing interdependence of cultures through emerging global techno-economic and sociocultural network.(3)

These authors also note that because these networks “transcend national boundaries,” they often “challenge previous forms of authority.”(3)  In Walking Dead, traditional hierarchical forms of authority such as hospitals, the military, the government (in particularly the CDC), and even local law enforcement have collapsed under the weight of the crisis.  Rick Grimes, the show’s protagonist, is a small town police deputy who gets shot in the line of duty.  When he awakens from a coma in an abandoned hospital and learns about the outbreak, he sets out to find his wife and son.  Although Rick still dons his police uniform which seems strangely outdated and reminiscent of  the old West, he insists that he is no longer a “cop” and is just a man “looking for his wife and kid.”  When he does act he does so, not as an agent of the state, but as an individual.  But despite his protestations, Rick still acts with a strong commitment to human society (i.e. his return to Atlanta to save Merle and warn Morgan and his son).  

When he is guarding the doors to the department store with a woman named Andrea, she admires a necklace on display: he asks her why she doesn’t just take the necklace.  She smiles and says it is because there is a cop looking over her shoulder and she wonders if taking it would be considered looting.  They both look back to the doors where a mass of zombies are crushing themselves against the glass to break down the department store doors and he states that he doesn’t think the old rules apply anymore.  Although Rick no longer represents man’s “law,” his actions and words point to a sense of moral agency even in the face of desperate “survival” conditions.  He will not condemn others (Andrea) for “looting” but he also feels an obligation to assist other survivors, even a violent racist (Merle), simply because he is still human.

Rick encountered firsthand the radical breakdown of traditional images of American power, when he confidently rides a horse directly into the epicenter of the zombie outbreak.  Rapidly the situation deteriorates, swarms of zombies surround him, and he barely escapes, finding shelter in an abandoned military tank, while the mass outside disembowels his horse.  The iconic Western vision of a lone cowboy riding into town to regulate and distribute justice dissolves in seconds when it is faced with the complex nature of new global realities.  The zombie outbreak requires more than brutal force and intimidation, it requires a new model of being in the world, one that requires not just “guts” but also “brains.”

The zombie virus spreads through contact with those infected (bites, scratches), thereby putting the whole population (network) at risk of contamination.  With increased connectivity and communication comes a greater risk of exposure.  Cities, microcosms of a globalized world, and bastions of the cosmopolitan world, are abandoned and those who do survive do so in small social groups in makeshift rural camps.  Isolationism is championed by some in these small groups as a tactic for self-preservation (i.e. Shane).  The short episode of “normalcy” in the show’s beginning puts into stark relief the war-torn images of desolate towns and ravaged cityscapes (burned out buses, lines of abandoned cars littering Atlanta’s highways).  The breakdown in authority and lack of enforcement of said authority leads to economic devastation.  Clean water, gas, energy, food, guns and ammunition, are all limited commodities.  There is no standard unit of currency and the small group seems to negotiate using a bartering system.

In The Suburban Gothic in American Popular Culture, Bernice M. Murphy explores Gothic culture, linking the modern American Zombie genre to anxieties regarding consumerism, mass production, and loss of individuality.  In chapter thee, entitled “Aliens, Androids, and Zombies: Dehumanization and the Suburban Gothic” Murphy explores the zombie phenomena. 

George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) took a supernatural threat which had previously been located in the Caribbean and associated with black magic and instead depicted zombies roaming around the American countryside, shambling parodies of their former selves.” (85)

Murphy continues,

by making his zombies cannibals (a characteristic otherwise largely absent from previous zombie movies) Romero facilitated his desire to pass comment on what he saw as the mindless consumerism and materialism of late twentieth-century American life. (86)

Some of this critique of American “mindless” consumerism may also be reflected in AMC’s Walking Dead series.  The department store scene, mentioned previously, in which hordes of vacant-eyed animated corpses press their flesh up against the glass doors, all blank faces and clawing hands, is eerily suggestive of the masses of crazed American shoppers who anxiously wait outside stores on Black Friday.  

Cultural and Religious Pluralism: Fear of Moral Relativism

Postmodernity, to turn again to Religion and Globalization, is presented as

a term that describes how globalization has transformed society into a pluralistic, multicentered reality subject to global influences that raise difficult questions about public norms and public order- questions that can easily lead to conflict.(6)

Accordingly, Postmodernity, is marked by the loss of a normative center or, put another way, its multiplicity of centers allows for a corresponding multiplicity of normative moralities (each beholden to its own center).  In a pluralistic society, in which more than one center claims supremacy, cultures and/or religions compete, and as is the case in Postmodern, pluralistic societies, many overarching metanarratives (religious or otherwise) are viewed with skepticism.  These Postmodern, pluralistic societies often appear “normless” or “without common shared meaning.”  (Religion and Globalization 5)

In Philosophy of Horror, Philip Tallon notes (in a chapter entitled, “Through a Mirror, Darkly: Art-Horror as a Medium for Moral Reflection”) that horror, as a genre, challenges the hubris of Modernity:

Where the Enlightenment placed great confidence in our ability to understand and organize the world according to over-arching ‘meta-narrative’ (big stories), postmodern thinkers like Jean-Francois Lyotard (1924-1998) have described our current condition as defined by ‘incredulity towards meta-narratives.’ For Lyotard, postmodernism represented a failure of all large-scale systems to adequately explain the world… Often this incredulity toward meta-narratives shows itself in our casual attitude toward moral objectivity.(38)

Tallon later reflects on horror’s ability to challenge both Modernity’s hubris and Postmodernity’s skepticism: “In criticizing postmodern relativism, horror pushes us to takes seriously our deepest moral convictions, but in criticizing lofty Enlightenment values, it also casts doubt on our highest moral intentions.”(40)

How might a TV series about flesh-eating ghouls challenge a viewer’s preconceived notions of social, political, and religious “givens”?  As a genre, horror depends on meta-narratives (religious or not) to frame the world, but horror is also contingent on the failure of said meta-narratives to categorize all phenomena (i.e. zombies).  Zombies are dead and yet alive, they are monsters but they are also victims, they are completely Other and yet were once just like us.  If zombies are categorically uncontainable (if there are fractures in the meta-narrative), then there can be no proscribed action. And yet, as Tallon so potently remarks:  “ there seems to be, despite the widespread trend towards relativism in morality and aesthetics, a deep human desire for bedrock order.”(39)

Rick’s initial reluctance to destroy the zombies (the wandering man, the little girl collecting toys at the gas station, and even the mutilated half corpse woman) displays his skepticism towards the new meta-narrative dominating his world which says all zombies are monsters, merely reanimated corpses.  However, when Rick embraces the moral ambiguity of the situation, that these monsters have some semblance of humanity still in them, he is able to face them.  Before he shoots the half corpse, he tells her he is sorry this happened to her.  Before he initiates the dismemberment of another zombie, Rick reads out the man’s name from his driver’s license, notes that it is a Georgia license, that he had a picture of a pretty girl and $28 in his wallet when he died.  Rick also notes that this zombie had once been just like them, human.

*** Religion Nerd will feature Part II of Kate’s exploration of the Zombie phenomena and AMC’s Walking Dead on December 6, 2010. 

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